Web Call Centers in the Real World: Integrating Call Centers and the Web

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Sometimes good, paradigm-busting ideas for running call centers come from outside teleservices. Perhaps that's not surprising, given that call centers historically have been closely entwined with the vertical industries they support.

Robert Roscoe, president of MBS Communications, a provider of outsourced call and order- processing services, says that his clients are using the Internet -- not on the front end of the transaction, but behind the scenes, to access real time information about their campaigns. Where once they would have gotten a daily report dump, now the Web provides it instantly. For example, in a traditional lead generation campaign, where the leads would be sent to a company's sales force for follow-up, the old way would have been to send a file or a fax. "It would get there a day or two later," Roscoe says. "Now, you can distribute that data, those leads, via the Internet."

For the last two years, the industry has pondered the many methods of connecting the Internet to the call center. Before the Web became the pre-eminent entry point, two separate vendor sectors explored the issue, from different points of view. The companies that made help desk software earlier this decade began to incorporate e-mail into the call tracking and case management/escalation components of their system. This was due to customer demand -- technical support centers were getting e-mails from customers asking about open cases, or seeking general information about problems. To boost the amount of customer self-support, it made sense to track incoming e-mails that could be tied to recognized cases.

At almost the same time, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) vendors began adding Web development features to their application generator toolboxes. Although it looks prescient now, this was probably done partly as a hedge against the coming growth of the Web as a self-service tool. It was known in 1994 that the Web was an excellent document distribution tool. It wasn't known that it would become a metaphor for the information age. But adding Web tools to IVR toolkits made a lot of sense in those days, because the flow control of a document retrieval Web contact is similar to that for an IVR interaction, as is a lot of the back-end retrieval. Only the front end changes. And in the case of the Web circa 1994-1995, the front end was an uncomplicated proposition.

Ever since then, the industry-wide conversation has focused on how to leverage the unbelievable growth of the Web and the Internet as consumer media with their potential in the call center. Most of that discussion has centered around what is enabled by available technology: Web-based, agent interactions, in which a consumer surfs the Web and is able to click through and request to speak to an agent. Then, using one of a number of flow methods (one-call, two-call, voice-over-Internet, etc.), that "surfer" is transformed into a "caller." The call is parsed according to traditional call center techniques with queues, hold times and agent performance tracked according to a close approximation of what would have happened over traditional phone lines.

There have been problems with implementing these tools: The technology is not mature. The Internet is crowded and bandwidth can be spotty. Perhaps most important, the consumer protocols for conducting personal business in this way are not fully developed. (They always seem to lag some years behind available technology.) All these problems will be worked out in time, but that may be several years away. Until then, how can a company wed the real-time power of the telephone call center with the Web, and do it cheaply, in a technologically robust way?

As I said, sometimes good ideas come from outside the industry.

I saw a clever twist on Web-based service at a recent demonstration by SocialScience, a New York-based software development firm. Their idea is based on the Web's current existence as a text- and document-based medium. Rather than try to force feed so much information down a pipe that narrows considerably the closer it gets to the customer desktop, it makes more sense to improve the kinds of interactions you can conduct using the strength of the medium.

Their core product, NetDiscussion, which is scheduled for release this month, looks like an Internet chat system. Two users can type messages to each other in real time. But the system, when embedded in a corporate Web page, can function as an entry point into a call center where agents respond to real-time customer questions via keyboard chat. The agent has the ability to push documents or forms back to the customer, who is viewing the corporate Web page and the ongoing chat conversation in separate frames on screen.

Too simple, you say? Perhaps. But consider some of the applications.

In a technical support environment, a rep can carry on several assistance projects at the same time. Several weeks ago, I spent more than an hour on the phone with a tech support rep while he walked me through some not-very-complicated adjustments to a lap-top computer. Much of his time was spent waiting for me to implement the configuration changes he read to me, and then tweaking through a dozen or more reboots. Needless to say, this was dead time for him, and I could envision him leafing through a magazine while he waited. And the toll charges mounted.

The same transaction could have been accomplished through a text-based interaction. If we were connected, he could have dumped to my screen a series of steps. While I was implementing them, he could be helping someone else, and could have been alerted back to me by a beep or change in state of the chat window. Less down time, more customers assisted, and toll-free service, without telecom charges.

The NetDiscussion system intends to give the agent automated triggers to save typing time and access to a library of documents he can push to the customer. I like this product, mainly because it tackles a persistent call center objective -- more calls, lower cost -- with a technology that is mature, robust, workable, easily integrated, and above all, inexpensive. A call center can quickly implement this bridge technology and justify its cost based on rep efficiency and toll reductions. It offers a way to enhance the perceived reach of the Web site -- all the way into the call center -- without having to use technology that's not ready.

Because this good idea came from outside the industry, some call center needs aren't completely addressed in the first iteration, such as distributing calls to an agent based on specific criteria, and tighter back-end data and ACD integration. I'd like to see these combined with e-mail and wrapped into a customer information system, for example. NetDiscussion and competing products will probably evolve based on the needs of the established call center and telecom companies they partner with.

Robert Roscoe sees a need for companies to hire call centers just to handle incoming e-mails. Ultimately, he speculates, it could become a measure of differentiation among service providers -- where average speed of e-mail response becomes as important as the traditional call measurement of average speed of answer.

Sometimes good ideas rely on simple, existing technology implemented in a new way.

<I> Keith Dawson is a technology writer and editor of the Call Center News

Service (www.callcenternews.com).<I>

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